Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper

I recently read Brant Pitre’s book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper (Doubleday, 2011). Pitre is Professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.

The book is birthed from Pitre’s personal experience. In the introduction he explains how he was ambushed by a Baptist minister over issues of Catholic theology, in particular the belief in Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist. Pitre is Roman Catholic and his wife, at least at that time, Baptist. They had gone to visit her pastor who was to marry the then engaged couple. But the meeting turned into a fiasco as the pastor pummeled Pitre with question after question about Catholic theology. It was Pitre’s inability to answer the questions that eventually led to not only his pursuit of a PhD in biblical studies, but also to writing this book.

In the book Pitre attempts to show the Jewish background to the Eucharist and, in particular, that Jesus taught that “he was really and truly present in the Eucharist” (p. 17). Pitre unpacks his argument over the course of eight chapters.

The groundwork for the investigation is laid by looking at the Last Supper and Jesus’ statements about “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood.”These statements are, of course, in direct contradiction to other statements about eating flesh and blood in places like Gen. 9:3-4, Lev. 17:10-12 and Deut. 12:16. Pitre asks the important question of how a first century Jew like Jesus could make such statements in light of the OT injunctions. Pitre argues that one must immerse themselves in the Jewish literature to fully understand what Jesus was saying and doing (pp. 19-21).

Pitre starts by providing a helpful look at Jewish messianic expectations. In a nutshell, Jews were looking for a new Moses who would lead a new exodus. Along with this there would be a new covenant, a new temple and a new promise land. Pitre then outlines how Jesus and his ministry reflect that Jewish hope (pp. 42-47). When Pitre looks at the Last Supper he finds aspects of Jesus instituting a “new Passover” which will begin the new exodus (pp. 68-74).

Of particular interest to Pitre are the bread and the wine. In chapter four he connects the bread of Jesus’ Eucharistic words with the manna of the exodus. He explains how manna was viewed, in Jewish tradition, as the “preexistent bread of the angels” (Ps. 7823-25; Wis 16:20-21) and expected to appear again when the messiah arrived (2 Bar 29:3, 6-8). Pitre goes on to connect this hope for manna with the prayer taught by Jesus in Matthew 6:9-13. He argues that the clause in 6:11 “give us our daily bread” is better translated as “give us our supersubstantial bread.” He supports this translation with an appeal to the Bread of Life sermon in John 6:30-34 and comments made by Jerome and Cyprian (p, 94-96). He goes on to suggest that this means that the bread of the Eucharist cannot be a mere symbol, but is the new manna and is, therefore, supernatural bread. He says “if the old manna of the first exodus was supernatural bread from heaven, then new manna of the Messiah must also be supernatural bread from heaven” (p. 103). By extension, Pitre argues that as the “new manna” Jesus can ask his followers to eat “his flesh” because by eating of the bread in the Eucharist they are eating the “new manna” which is Jesus (p. 115).

Next, Pitre connects Jesus’ real presence in communion with the bread of the presence, which was placed before God daily in the temple. He contends that the Hebrew panim, which can be translated as “presence” or “face” should be translated as face, thus making the bread the “bread of the face” (p. 121). Pitre links this bread to Jesus through the story about King David eating the bread in Matt 12:1-6 (p. 135). He then connects the instructions about the Bread of the Presence (Ex 25; Lev 24) with the Eucharistic words of Jesus in Luke 22. Pitre contends that Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist was also the institution of the new Bread and Wine of the Presence, the bread of Jesus’ own presence (p. 143).

Finally, Pitre looks at the various cups of wine used at the Passover meal and how they figure into Jesus’ Last Supper. He shows that there were four cups during the meal, the last of which he calls the cup of “concluding rites.” He suggests, however, that Jesus does not drink this cup at the supper. He bases this claim on Jesus’ vow “not to drink again of the fruit of the vine until [he does so] in the new kingdom” (Matt 26:7-30; Mark 14:24-26). Pitre argues that when Jesus prays for God to “take away the cup” in the Garden of Gethsemane, that Jesus is talking about the fourth cup (pp. 163-64). But, he says, Jesus does finally drink the cup on the cross as he takes in the wine from the sponge offered to him (pp. 166-68). By doing this, Pitre suggests, Jesus extended the Passover meal to the cross and transformed the cross into a Passover (169). Jesus finished the meal when he drank from the wine soaked sponge and then died as the Passover sacrifice.

Pitre is to be commended for his work on this topic. He brings together a number of loose ends and helps to connect them. Those not familiar with the Old Testament and Second Temple literature will be introduced to a number of new ideas. But Pitre provides not just historical and literary links, he also helps readers to think theologically about the Eucharist and its connection to the Passover. The tone is casual, yet informative which makes it accessible to those who are NOT scholars. There is a lot in this book and I am sure that I have not done it justice in this review, so I encourage you to read it for yourself. I present below six areas of critique that I want to make of Pitre’s work.

  1. While he garners an impressive array of Jewish texts to support his conclusions, many of them are too far removed to be used with his level of confidence. His use of the Mishnah, the Talmud and Midrahsim is suspect since this literature is at least 200 years old or older. Certainly there may be some connections to Jewish messianic expectations and an understanding of the Passover between this literature and the first century. But Pitre never explains how we can be confident that he can use this material for his project. He notes that they can be used"with caution," but he never presents his methodology (pp. 20-21). A lot can change in the course of 200 or more years. The way that he presents his arguments with this supporting literature will be found problematic by many.

  2. I would level the same criticism at his use of early Christian literature like Jerome, Cyprian and others. Granted, some later church fathers did make these types of theological interpretations of the Last Supper. But, as with the Jewish literature, we cannot be sure that what they thought in the fourth century was what Jesus and other early Christians thought in the first century. There are many other things that the later church fathers said about the NT that we would not want to claim today, like some of the antisemitic lines found among some of the fathers. So we must be cautious in the way that we use these sources.

  3. His use of the gospels is problematical because he tends to harmonize them and picks and chooses the gospel that seems to support his goals. He does not tell the reader why Matthew’s version is better than Mark’s or Luke’s for instance. It is difficult to know why he has chosen which text. There does not seem to be any consideration of the differing presentations and theologies that exist between the synoptic gospels.

  4. Along the same lines is his use of John’s gospel. Pitre uses John quite often, especially the Bread of Life discourse. But what he never acknowledges nor tells his reader is that there is no institution of the Eucharist in John’s gospel. John replaces the bread and wine with a foot washing. Similarly, Pitre’s claim that while on the Cross, Jesus knowingly drank the wine from the sponge as a way to “complete the Passover” is suspect since only in John does Jesus say “I thirst.” John seems to be doing something theological rather than historical. It would have been good to hear from Pitre his thoughts on John’s theological interpretation of the Last Supper and how that may or may not alter his conclusions and his theology.

  5. At times he pushes the bounds of linguistic theory by insisting on obscure or very wooden translations. His argument that the “Bread of the Presence” be the “Bread of the Face” and that the “daily bread” be “supernatural bread" seems to bend the language to fit the project.

  6. Finally, it is difficult to know if Pitre is doing history or theology. Granted, the two are not mutually exclusive by necessity. But how one uses the sources is determined by the goal. Pitre claims that he is providing the Jewish roots of the Eucharist, but quite often he seems to be using his sources to support his theology rather than to develop it. His theology would be stronger, I suggest, if he had done his historical work more carefully.

Let me conclude by saying that I am not challenging Roman Catholic belief in the Real Presence of Jesus. I commend Pitre for trying to understand the theology of his church and for trying to find a way to help others understand it. This book does have a lot to commend to it, in particular the impressive collection of texts that he has brought together.

I am challenging, however, the methodology used to get there. I think his aim of showing the Jewish roots of the Eucharist is an admirable and worthwhile project. But it is important that the case not be overstated by using methods and sources that do not necessarily do the job.

I suggest that this book be used with caution.


  1. Great review John. Thumbs up dude!

  2. What an excellent review! It's sad that he never made contact with a Messianic believer to find out the truth of what real Jews believe about the 4th cup of passover. Which of course is the real roots of our communion.

    Having studied within the Catholic church for over 2yrs, his presentation of his material is common for a Catholic and follows close to his roots. And his passion for his subject it commendable.

    But having said that, passion and sincerity is no guarantee of the truth. I'll spare my theological views here. That's material for another book, another day.

    Thanks Dr. J.B. for a great review!
    Your friend from The Bookery

  3. I'd like to make a correction. I mentioned the 4th cup- it was actually the 3rd cup, the Redemption, is where our communion cup comes from.

  4. sounds pretty similar to the thrashing he was given by rowe in the latest First Things...

  5. Hmm, I haven't seen that review. I will check it out.